New York

Karl Schrag, Michael Goldberg, Jacqueline Gourevitch, Harriet Korman, Frank Lincoln Viner, Materials and Methods: A New View

Associated American Artist Gallery, Paley & Lowe Gallery, Tibor de Nagy Gallery

A retrospective exhibition of the graphic production of KARL SCHRAG is a serious occasion which might easily pass unnoticed. Schrag is one of the few figures of note who is, in an exclusive sense, a graphic artist (Una Johnson’s catalog raisonné lists 175 items executed between 1939 and 1970) and who, while clearly outside of fashion or school, has exercised a beneficent influence on the history of graphics in America by virtue of a long teaching career at Cooper Union and his tenure as director of Atelier 17, the French graphics workshop in exile which was organized by William Stanley Hayter during World War II. It is largely through Schrag’s efforts that direct burin engraving on copperplate was again respected and it is this aspect of his production which I find most affecting. Owing to the example of Schrag himself, following the lead of Hayter technically but rejecting Hayter’s commitment to Surrealist anthropomorphism, the Atelier 17 circle (which included Gabor Peterdi, Andre Racz and Mauricio Lasansky, not to mention Mirò, Tanguy and Masson, here as refugees) was drawn to a close examination of the surface of copperplate and to the possibilities of highly colored combinations of burin engraving and soft ground etching. It is clear that a fuller understanding of the Surrealist episode in America will someday have to account for the role played by Atelier 17. The oneiric personage, for example, was rendered ubiquitous through their efforts.

By contrast, Schrag’s personal evolution is of far more gentle cast having, on his expatriation from Germany, fitted a romantic iconography to social realist clues. From the end of the 1940s until the present day, Schrag has emphasized that aspect of nature symbolism stressed in his humanistic European education and expressed through the use of the engraved plate, deep parallel incisions coming to symbolize surging tides and aspiring growths. In this I see less the mark of Surrealist influence — although parallels to Max Ernst’s graphics can easily be drawn—and more of the artist’s intimacy with German Romantic poetry, Goethe, Novalis and Kleist. Slowly turning away from the burin in the ’60s, Schrag began to adopt a more aggressive etching and aquatint technique in which larger gestural configurations took on a strong language of landscape calligraphy. In this later manner one may say that, by a curious process of adaptation, Van Gogh’s cypress trees of Arles have become clipped and American, so closely do they determine a calligraphic figure which exteriorizes primordial natural forces. In this way Schrag announces an American continuity with early O’Keeffe, early Zorach and Arthur B. Dove. By contrast, it also points up the most contentious problem of his work: a frank reluctance, grounded in humanism, ever to sacrifice sensibility in favor of the alembicated symbolic language that his equally strong analytical turn of mind suits him for. Schrag would have it that these dualities can be reconciled. To me not. But the example of the attempt, the good battle so to speak, is in Schrag’s hands, moving, even inspiring.

Art and critical history have a way of tampering with reading the career of MICHAEL GOLDBERG. A recipient of impassioned acclaim in the ’50s, Goldberg in the ’60s was pilloried by this initial fervor. At first, attracted by the gestural side of the Abstract Expressionist legacy, Goldberg, l’enfant prodige of the “10th Street touch,” now once more seems to be reliving the decorative aspects of an expressionism to which he has come too late. In the interim between early praise and middle neglect, Goldberg rejected the gesture for the field. In working his way to the field that side of non-gestural expressionism which the ’60s emphasized as so-called “color painting” Goldberg still alludes to the mid-’50s in his revival of a surface of metallic iridescence. At first this shimmer might be seen as a trailing off from the recent iridescences of Novros’s acrylics on plastic or the automotive sheens of the California colorists. They can however be traced to Goldberg’s early paintings those turbulent impastos of the mid ’50s into which metallic powders had been dumped and sprawled.

By contrast, the new work is cool and self-effacing, unified metallic shimmers held in acrylic sprays which meander in approximately square-to-square registers, or in rectangle-around-rectangle applications. Barely visible, these systems are clearer in a raked light.

Certainly the work has far too many antecedents in the ’60s McCracken say, or Olitski, or Eva Hesse or even Hundertwasser to qualify them as anything but diffident works of a respectable painter. Yet the brainlessly lovely shimmer, as refined as the outer skin of an onion, leads to apple-green, chalk-silver and new-penny lustrousness. These, more than perhaps any other painting today, seem closer to the fashionable catch-phrase “lyrical abstraction” than the dense, inadvertently early Goldberg-like canvases the phrase was coined to cover.

There is nothing remotely “in touch” or fashionable about JACQUELINE GOUREVITCH’s paintings. Yet, without pretensions, she is possessed of serious ambitions. Five years ago I saw a show of landscape paintings at the Roko Gallery and was impressed by the modest aspirations of a young hand, citing sources in Redon, Boudin, and even Ruskin, but emphasizing that the cloud paintings carried the exhibition (Artforum, April, 1966). Now, a group of mature cloud canvases appears at Tibor de Nagy. What is so striking about these modestly proportioned works is the freshness of touch, the vivid self-awareness of each stroke, the need to keep the image open and clean, all in the context of a chromatic range which is cued tonally rather than coloristically. Gourevitch transposes a chromatic respect for open hue to an essentially draftsman-like sensibility. This linking leads to a compositional order based on the “painting-out” of cloud imprints and barbings “reduced” by a blue sky which eats away and erases the surface and which establishes planar shapes and horizon-like registrations.

But Gourevitch—I really mean painters like her—presents theoretical problems. She is a canvas-to-canvas painter (clearly there now, hitting it every time) and as such she inches outside of our sensibility. Surely, artistic identities expressed as a continuum is a retrograde notion, perhaps the chief failure of imagination of the 19th century. Continuity has certainly been abandoned in favor of instantaneity, overall oneness supplanted by compressed periodicity and disparate episodes. The transference of sensation through the medium of paint onto canvas has been replaced by an instinctuality indifferent to means. It would seem that Gourevitch has become an achieved artist in precisely the way in which it is almost impossible to imagine an artist wanting to.

In a group exhibition composed of well-known figures—Dan Christensen, Walter Darby Bannard, Jules Olitski, Peter Young, Neil Williams and Jo Baer—a modest canvas remains to be singled out, a white painting by HARRIET KORMAN, who until now has elicited little response in New York except possibly as someone who was. once in Richard Serra’s classes at Queens College. The Korman canvas deals with an understated gestural problem—a vertical crayon stroke pressed through the dingy surface paint at regular intervals across the face of the canvas. The work was done in 1969. Inquiry led to two other paintings of the same date in the gallery storeroom; one, a work in which pressed “erasures” revealed some crayon lines beneath and the other, a lateral extension of a numerical system recorded across the canvas face and then alternately painted out. What is interesting is the attempt to discover a compositional means which, while still open to part-to-part analysis, and even loose grid structure, is no longer dependent upon a Cubist-derived system of shape-to-shape comparison—an alternative which was first proposed in Rauschenberg’s white number painting of 1949 for all of its Klee-like clues. Korman is clearly an artist of promise.

The Soho cooperative gallery at 55 Mercer Street, an intriguingly squalid space, is filled with what amounts to a retrospective of the vinyl and mixed media works of FRANK LINCOLN VINER from that moment when he first came to elicit curiosity in the “Abstract Inflationist” and the “Eccentric Abstraction” exhibitions to the large survey of new materials called “A Plastic Presence.” In this light Viner’s evolution parallels that of Eva Hesse or Keith Sonnier without ever having achieved the reputations of these artists. I don’t think the reason for this is to be found in the Expressionist cast of Viner’s productions, which might be pointed to as having worked against him, but in the curiously superficial ends towards which much of his production has been aimed. There is an intrinsic difference between abstract wall compositions of plastic material and those which take configurations based on garment metaphors. Both tendencies, are to be seen in Viner’s work of the last four years, but it is the latter which predominates. I think the clothing like references have isolated him from serious consideration because of their very immediate relationship to a specific world of here and now utilitarianism and hip fashionability. Numerous vinyl tubes function less as wall relief and more as shoulder bag constructions. Shredded plastic dresses which trail from iron poles are less about the vocabulary of limp sculpture and more about their roles as kimono or costume. Punched and filled zippered constructions do not connote ritual sites so much as they denote displacements of hassocks and soft furniture. Complex strapped and folded soft sculptures appear to evoke the dim memory of shoe bags and garment bags. I am suggesting that the utilitarian metaphor in Frank Lincoln Viner’s work comes out of a too specific reliance on closet and garment imagery. Clearly Viner employs the wide range of synthetic substance and the more eccentric constructivist methods—sewing, lacing and grommeting—common to anti-Minimalist sensibility and pictorial sculpture (think of Alan Shields, for example). But it is equally apparent in the artist’s work that his considerable powers are still tied to the stuffed and sewn production that we associate with Oldenburg’s great Pop works of the early ’60s.

The pedagogic issues raised by a selection of the work of five contemporary artists is met by the museum director’s title, “Materials and Methods: A New View.” Having to stress this side of things is, perhaps, built into the questions Pat Sands must answer as the director of a small museum, even one in the environs of New York City, but they are not immediate to the considerations of my catalog essay which addressed itself to “The Disintegration of Minimalism: Five Pictorial Sculptors.” The artists in question are Eva Hesse, Richard Van Buren, Alan Saret, Keith Sonnier and Dorothea Rockburne—a strong selection made by Mrs. Sands. The sculptural/architectural ambitions of 1964-67 covered by the stylistic term “Minimal” had been subjugated and replaced in the phase of 1967-70 by an alternative sensibility that I have called pictorial sculpture. The morphological characteristics of these antithetical options hard against soft, geometry against amorphousness, the monolith against the distributed, the autonomous against the continuous—are now so familiar as to warrant no extrapolation here. The only real discovery made at this exhibition is that the pictorial sculptural sensibility is, as a unified movement in a moment of history, over. Immediately, this has practical results. We are no longer obliged to make value judgments on the basis of an artist’s or an object’s pertinence to a vanguard position. In this light all the works shown here are—were—equally good. But, holding that the phase of discovery is now over, what ensues is that levels of specific achievement must be pointed to. On this score the exhibition fragments into qualitative contrasts between the merely challenging—Alan Saret, for example, who in his new work seems to be losing ground—and the seriously discursive. In this connection Eva Hesse’s Accession III of 1967-68 and the Expanded Expansion of 1969 have already moved into a rarefied class of prescient masterpieces. Likewise, in the only artist whose evolution we can gauge, as a new work of hers was made expressly for the exhibition, Dorothea Rockburne appears even more intellectually stringent, yet personal, than in her recent exhibition last December. A floor-lying configuration of paper and plastic sheeting, bearing a coincidental similarity to a flat bed at the corner of the floor with paper cylinders at the head and foot, was “made-up” in the room. Rolled around these tubes is plastic sheeting which has had crude oil spilled between the layers causing an unctuous network to form across the central body of rectangular cardboard. The plastic sheeting is attached to the wall which descends from a low marked graphite line. Impressive and sober, it carries an exhibition consecrated to a movement clearly tending towards the academic.